Written 20 April 2016

Exhilarating! That’s the word for the intensive, no-holds-barred encounter between the Lions and the Stormers. For a match which produced only three tries, it was, nevertheless, a thrilling encounter. Even for the uninitiated and the casual spectator, this match was marked by two evenly matched teams whose commitment, on defence particularly, was palpable. No quarter was asked or given.

So how did the Stormers lose? Perhaps its mirror-image question is to ask why and how the Lions won? I suppose a reasonable answer would be that the Lions took two of their opportunities – one offered from a superb chip kick by Elton Jantjes which led to turnover ball and then a superbly timed and delivered long pass from this fine flyhalf, to an unmarked Ruan Combrinck on the right wing. The second opportunity offered itself when, from the usual series of professional fouls in the Stormers red zone, a penalty was awarded to the Lions five metres from their tryline. 

Sadly, this foray into the Stormers red zone came about when the promising Jean-Luc du Plessis, knocked on a ball after a long kick down field from the Lions. Now, the Stormers are renowned for their defensive skills on and around their tryline. To call them masterly is no exaggeration. They get into a space of intense concentration, each knows his role, be it going for the ball, getting under the hopeful attacker and preventing a grounding and so on. But for a split second when this penalty was awarded, a momentary lapse in concentration and, to be fair, a brilliant piece of opportunistic play by Faf de Klerk saw him tap the ball and dive between two large defenders and ground the ball with his left hand.

From then on, the Stormers attacked valiantly through their impressive fullback, Cheslin Kolbe, their trio of Carr, Notshe, Burger and latterly Kolisi and, indeed, every man in their team. It was only cast iron defence from the home team that kept them out. But Kolisi’s try was out of the top drawer. Great skills in driving forward, interpassing and support play saw the try-scorer’s break and, with a bewildering sidestep, go over near the posts.

After all the hoo-ha about Jean Luc du Plessis, I expected more. I expected him to kick equally well with either foot: he is but another one-foot kicker. Of course I admit that players like Latham of Australia and Montgomery of South Africa, played some exceptional rugby despite having only a left foot, so to speak. But think how much better they would have been had their coaches insisted on the development of an ability with both feet. So du Plessis played quite well, judgement was generally good, but why did he kick off a long ball to his left when Andries Coetzee came on as replacement fullback? He clearly had no idea Coetzee was a left-footer and from that kick-off, play resumed for the Stormers, after a massive kick from Coetzee, on their own ten-yard line. Careless thinking by the flyhalf. It’s called ‘attention to detail’.

I’m sure he’ll do well with some perceptive, detailed coaching, and he played better than I expected after the outrageously, over- the- top hype which followed his first Super Rugby match against the Kings. I mean, let’s be frank, to impress against an admittedly game and improving Kings team, is an achievement of sorts, but nothing to rave about. 

I recall a few years ago now, there was a cry from a sector of rugby fans for Francois Steyn to play flyhalf for South Africa. So he was given a chance in that position against an Italy B side. He scored two tries and kicked well, but was no indication of quality play. Steyn always performed reasonably at flyhalf but is mediocre in that position and devaststingly effective at inside centre. So I’ll be watching young du Plessis with interest in the matches which lie ahead. 

I was disappointed with the Stormers’ lack of imagination regarding use of their blindside wings. Seldom were Kotze and Zas deployed effectively. To break the line, an extra man is vital and skill, practised over and over again, is needed to put someone into the gap. By contrast, Skosan for the Lions, was all over the place, looking for work and the same goes for Combrinck. The Lions deserved their 29-22 victory; they played for the full 80 minutes and took their two chances.

Against the rampant Crusaders, the Jaguares were outgunned by a superb battalion of professional experts. No shame to lose against the likes of Read, Crotty, Fuatau, Nadolo and MacNicholl to mention only a few. Crotty’s ability to ‘straighten the line’ by using a sidestep inwards, allows him to half-break an feed to the inevitable support on his inside. Wonderful skill! The Crusaders played with high energy, effective scrummaging and wonderful distribution of the ball.

The Hurricanes, in their encounter against the Rebels, were much improved in all departments with a self-belief that was obvious. Julian Savea’s three tries were the result of powerful driving and support; his brother Ahti, at flank, also had another great game. Although Perenara is, inexcusably, another one-foot wonder, he is great on the break. The Rebels looked out of sorts.

The Bulls played some delightful rugby against the Reds, who were the first to score when their left wing went over early on, It proved to be a false dawn as the Bulls played with indiminished vigour and power to play some delightful fifteen man rugby. I think Brummer is a fine general at No. 10, shows good judgement and distributes well. The Reds scrapped manfully on with two tries for the outstanding centre, Kerevi, but the home team simply had too much gas in the tank.

The Sharks, playing with a great deal more initiative and flair, lost their match against the Blues only in the last few minutes. This came about in a nightmare scenario where a missed touch kick found Rico Ioane on the left wing. He set off on a winding, stepping run broke two tackles and rounded the fullback to score an amazing try and seal the game for his team. The Sharks were in it till the end and had started well, scoring through a brilliant offload to Paul Jordaan, ( whom I inexplicably called ‘Swanepoel’ last week) who ran fast and strongly to score. With Esterhuyse at inside centre usually, it should be routine to have him make the half gap through a dummy and then pass behind the defender to an outside centre like Jordaan. 

Finally, one wishes Alister Coetzee well on his appointment as Springbok coach. I can only hope the politicians stay off his back and let him get on with it. As for his supporting coaches, let’s wait and see. I hope Mzwandile Stick has what it takes to coach our backs up to the standard of New Zealand and Australian players.

Neil Jardine

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